Trudeau’s War Measures Act: A Reminiscence

On Friday, Oct. 16, 1970, I woke up at about 7:00 a.m. and turned on the radio. At the time, I was living in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The news I heard shocked me. In the middle of the night, Canada’s Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau had invoked the War Measures Act. What was that? I had never heard of it. The radio announcer explained that by invoking this law, Trudeau had given himself the power to arrest anyone he wished and to hold any people he wished in jail indefinitely without charging them with a crime.

My thoughts on Trudeau’s invocation of the War Measures Act are relevant today because of what I learned from this: that my instinctive distrust of government officials who claim vast discretionary powers over their citizens is likely to be justified.

I learned in the newspaper the next day that the law also gave Trudeau the powers of:

(a) censorship, and the control and suppression of publications, writings, maps, plans, photographs, communications, and means of communication;
(b) arrest, detention exclusion, and deportation;
(c) control of the harbors, ports, and territorial waters of Canada and the movements of vessels;
(d) transportation by land, air, or water and the control of the transport of persons and things;
(e) trading, exportation, importation, production, and manufacture;
(f) appropriation, control, forfeiture, and disposition of property and of the use thereof.

In essence, then, the act gave Trudeau totalitarian power. The good news is that he didn’t use most of these powers. The bad news is that he used the power in (b) extensively. But I’m getting ahead of the story.

The radio reporter explained that Trudeau had invoked the law because he was worried about an “insurrection” in Quebec. I smelled a rat. I knew, as did virtually all Canadians, that a separatist group, the Front de Liberation du Quebec (FLQ), had in the previous days kidnapped two high government officials: Quebec Labor Minister Pierre Laporte and British Trade Commissioner James Cross. I knew it was a serious crisis. But an insurrection? That didn’t seem plausible. Had the police found a huge cache of arms? Trudeau didn’t say. (As we’ll see later, they hadn’t.) Moreover, if a group is seriously planning an insurrection, does it kidnap two government officials who aren’t particularly important politically? It seemed to me that the real explanation for Trudeau’s reason for invoking the War Measures Act was that (1) he could and (2) it was a chance to hobble his political opposition from Quebec. Regarding the latter, Trudeau had been an outspoken critic of separatism in the 1960s, before he became prime minister, and here was an opportunity for him to go after his opponents in a harsh way, a way that they could not fight back against.

I thought all this in the hour after hearing the report. I talked about this with my roommate at the time, Ron Robinson, and we agreed that this was a bad idea. Surely, I thought, most Canadians would think so, too, and there would be a huge backlash. Even if, clearly, most Canadians were not libertarians, hadn’t we seen enough of governments claiming power with little evidence to back up their actions? I thought, for example, of the Canadian government’s incarceration of thousands of Japanese-Canadians during World War II.

I was wrong about most Canadians’ reactions – and badly wrong. My second shock happened at about 9:00 a.m., when I called an old high-school friend – I’ll call him James – for some information about various jobs I was considering. Here’s the conversation, as best I can remember it.

David: Isn’t it awful what happened?

James: Yeah. I sure hope the War Measures Act works and they catch these guys.

In other words, what James found awful was the kidnapping. So did I. But he supported Trudeau’s use of the War Measures Act. So I decided to go through my day not signaling my view of Trudeau’s action and just neutrally asking people their views. The only people who agreed with me were libertarians – fortunately, virtually all the ones I talked to. Everyone else I talked to favored it.

There was a local protest the next day, which, I’m ashamed to say, I didn’t attend. But the Winnipeg Free Press reported – I don’t know whether it was accurate – that the attendees were almost solely from the New Democratic Party (NDP), Canada’s left-wing party, and not just from the NDP but from the left wing of the NDP. The head of the NDP at the time was Tommy Douglas, who, as premier of Saskatchewan in the early 1960s, had brought single-payer health care to the province. I didn’t like that, but I admired him for his clarity and courage in speaking out against Trudeau’s action. His outspokenness cost his party a lot of support.

It turns out, of course, that there was no “apprehended insurrection,” to use Trudeau’s overwrought phrasing. Moreover, Trudeau had lied or, at the very least, seriously misled the public. Trudeau, in explaining his actions on television, claimed that Quebec’s government had asked him to invoke the law. But here’s what Guy Bouthillier, a political scientist in Quebec, writes:

“Prime Minister Trudeau’s Principle Secretary Marc Lalonde drafted the Quebec government’s request for War Measures and personally carried the letter to Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa and oversaw its signing.”

Moreover, writes Bouthillier:

“Studies have shown however that the leading police force, the RCMP, was opposed to invoking such sweeping measures as a means to free the hostages and arrest the kidnappers. In an exhaustive study based on hitherto confidential documents, security expert and political scientist Reg Whitaker pointed out that ‘the RCMP never asked for the War Measures Act, were not consulted as to its usefulness, and would have opposed it if they had been asked their opinion.’”

Interestingly, according to Bouthillier, one of the first people to congratulate Trudeau on his assertion of executive power was that noted civil libertarian Henry Kissinger.

Trudeau used the law to hold 497 people in prison incommunicado, some of them for months. The police did track down the kidnappers, but only after the kidnappers had murdered Laporte, and negotiated James Cross’s release in return for safe passage to Cuba. According to Canadian author Walter Stewart, in his book, Shrug: Trudeau in Power, the police found the kidnappers using conventional police methods, not, apparently, using anything obtained from the poets, writers, artists, grass-roots activists, politicians, and others whom Trudeau had detained.

Here’s what Eric Kierans, one of Trudeau’s own cabinet ministers who, at the time, favored the War Measures Act, wrote in his 2001 memoirs:

” None of the secret police raids turned up the guns, rifles, machine guns, bombs, or dynamite, although they did sweep up Pauline Julien, who sang separatist songs. … It was Tommy Douglas of the NDP who stood in the House, day after day, and hammered the government for suspending civil liberties, and if you ask me today why I wasn’t up there beside him I can only say, damned if I know. He showed political courage of the highest order.”

It was this event – and most Canadians’ reactions to it – that got me thinking for the first time about moving to the United States. “Americans wouldn’t approve if their government claimed such extreme powers,” I thought. Now, after the USA PATRIOT Act, after Guantanamo Bay, after President Bush used a secret executive order to authorize electronic eavesdropping on Americans, after the federal government forces us to take off our shoes and our belts before we fly, and Americans meekly acquiesce, and now that President Obama has shown himself to care as little about Americans’ civil liberties as President Bush did, I’m not so sure.

So, what’s the lesson? It’s to distrust government when it claims sweeping new powers. At a Left-Right conference on the wars in Washington that I participated in last February, Ralph Nader said that we are about two more 9/11s away from a police state. I think he’s right. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if the next time the government made a huge grab for power, a large of percent of Americans said, “No, you don’t”? That’s a tea party I could get really excited about.

Copyright © 2010 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to reprint should be directed to the author or

Author: David R. Henderson

David R. Henderson is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and an emeritus professor of economics in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is author of The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey and co-author, with Charles L. Hooper, of Making Great Decisions in Business and Life(Chicago Park Press). His latest book is The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (Liberty Fund, 2008). He has appeared on The O’Reilly Factor, the Jim Lehrer Newshour, CNN, MSNBC, RT, Fox Business Channel, and C-SPAN. He has had over 100 articles published in Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, Red Herring, Barron’s, National Review, Reason, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Hill, and the Christian Science Monitor. He has also testified before the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources. He blogs at